On Alligators and Critiques

Plein air painting with a group has several advantages, and yesterday I was reminded of one of the important advantages:  safety.  We were at a new location called The Oaks, which is one of those gems hidden in plain sight in the middle of the city.  Located on the corner of a busy intersection amidst shopping malls and professional complexes, The Oaks is a park which boasts a small pond surrounded by large, old oak trees loaded with big gray beards of moss.  Cabbage palms sprout here and there or intertwine with the oak branches.  A neatly trimmed lawn carpets the wide spaces between the shady trees.  All seems serene and tamed. 

Spanish Moss

Spanish Moss

As more artists arrived, we all began chatting about the day and the place, which included a comment to one artist that they hoped the ‘gator wouldn’t come after her today.  Say again?  The artist in question explained that on a previous paint out, an alligator resident of the pond had made an unprovoked charge at her.  She had safely retreated but remained very cautious.  The rest of us embraced that caution and chose locations well back from the shoreline.  We saw no signs of the ‘gator, though we did note an absence of birds on the pond.  When ducks began showing up and swimming in the pond, we watched closely. 

The paint out was wonderfully uneventful, however, and we had a beautiful grouping of paintings to share with each other.   Our discussions about these paintings – what we liked about each other’s work and the struggles we had with our own – eventually developed into a discussion about what we were really doing (informally): critiquing. 

Critiques are a valuable part of being with other artists – that is, if they are properly done.  I have been fortunate in that a large majority of critiques I have participated in have been constructive and encouraging.  I have, however, heard some horror stories, including instances where someone felt they had the right to tell another person to give up painting.  That is NEVER what a true critique is about.  Critiques should never be an experience of wondering when an alligator is going to suddenly eat one of the ducks.

A true critique is an opportunity for artists to encourage each other to improve as professionals.  Ideally, it is a discussion where colleagues (and instructors, if it is a class or workshop) comment on the technical strengths they see in an image, possibly share what emotion or message they bring away from the image, and offer technical suggestions on how the artist might make the image stronger.  The artist can then confirm whether or not his or her intent in the work was successful and what technical aspects they felt they were struggling with.  Some of the technical aspects often discussed are overall composition, use of the space, center of attention, perspective (IF it applies to the image), values (lights and darks), mark making and color relationships. 

No matter what skill level or style an artist employs, we can always discuss whether the viewer’s eye is drawn to the intended focal point: is something else competing for attention? Is the intended mood or message being communicated?  What might be interfering with that message?  Here is where having a group critique is helpful:  some people might come away with the intended mood or message, and others may read the image very differently.  The artist can then appreciate what a viewer brings to the painting and decide whether he or she wants to make changes.  Maybe a particular subject encourages one message while the choices of color bring a different read to the image (for example, think of what impact a sky color will have on a landscape image even with all other parts of the image remaining the same.)  Sometimes an artist’s exquisite detail can beautiful yet still pull the eye away from the real purpose of the image, or beautiful mark making might overwhelm the subject.  Painting is a complex, mindful process.  A successful critique should help the artist determine if he or she has succeeded in the purpose of the image, and if not, receive encouraging feedback on how to bring the work to the next level.

I find that regular participation in critiques helps me to better assess my own work.  For example, I can be on the alert for times when my obsession with an object interferes with my intent in the painting as happened in this session.   I became so fascinated with the wonderful masses of moss hanging from the trees that I forgot to focus on what the image really needed to convey the coolness and serenity of the place that I intended to share.  Yet I still have the information that I did put in the image, the exercise of painting from life, and the visions expressed by my colleagues.  I can revisit the subject and use all that information to create a better painting next time.